The United Kingdom declared war on Germany on 3rd September 1939, but it was not until May 1940 that most people in Britain were aware that there “was a war on”. This period of relative inactivity became known as “the phoney war”.
However, the word “relative” is important, because there was action at sea right from the start, including the sinking of a British aircraft carrier (HMS Courageous) within weeks of war being declared, with more than 500 lives being lost.
Another naval action occurred on 16th February 1940. HMS Cossack pursued a German supply ship, the Altmark, and forced it to run aground in a Norwegian fjord (see photo). The action had two unexpected consequences.
The first of these was that when the Altmark was boarded and its hatches opened, the Royal Navy sailors discovered that the ship was carrying around 300 British merchant crewmen who had been rescued and captured when their ships had been sunk earlier the previous year by the German battleship Graf Spee. They were being transported to Germany where, given their civilian status, they could not have expected the treatment accorded to accredited prisoners of war. They could have found themselves working for the rest of the war in German factories as virtual slave labour.
HMS Cossack returned to Britain with the rescued seamen, leading to much rejoicing on the part of the British people. However, the incident was seen by the Norwegians as an act that violated their neutrality, and by Germany as a threat to their supply route for Swedish iron ore. The second consequence of the incident was therefore that Hitler pushed his already planned invasion of Norway to the top of his list of priorities and delayed plans to invade France and the Low Countries.
The rescue of the British merchant crews led to a new catchphrase. When the hatches of the Altmark were opened and the crewmen discovered, the Royal Navy sailors announced “The Navy’s here”. Winston Churchill used this in a speech in London when he announced that, to Nelson’s famous signal “England expects that every man will do his duty” should be added the words “The Navy’s here”.
© John Welford